Training is already well underway for the 2009 Hatsu Basho with one man leading the pack in terms of exertion put in, and column inches covering that effort. That man is Asashoryu.

Although there have been calls in the last two years for him to maintain the dignity of his rank by stepping aside and retiring, for those in place during the Jan. 3 training at Musashigawa Beya in Tokyo’s Arakawa Ward, there would have been little doubt that this is the man to beat. Throughout a session attended by upward of 15 sekitori, the Mongolian dominated, in the presence of Baruto, Asasekiryu, Tochiozan and many more, casting aside such experienced giants as Miyabiyama as if they were simply not there.

The following day, he opted for a more relaxed pace at a Dewanoumi Beya gathering. Once again he won far more than he lost, but this time dedicated his efforts more to advising the relative newcomers to the top flight as opposed to going all out.

Fellow yokozuna Hakuho, on the other hand, has been noticeable by his absence and the lack of training he is putting in. There have been little in the way of full-on sessions for the Miyagino Beya man. Harumafuji too remains largely off the radar screens, which is unlike the newly promoted ozeki formerly known as Ama. A popular, smaller-than-most rikishi, he will certainly bring in the crowds during Hatsu as he pushes for his first Emperor’s Cup in 2009. Hopefully he will be in shape.

With a stronger sanyaku than in recent years, Harumafuji will have his work cut out for him, particularly with Hakuho in fine fettle on the Kokugikan dohyo last year, and ever ready to add to his already impressive tally of nine Emperor’s Cups to date.

Over at Tomozuna Beya, home to kadoban ozeki Kaio, clouds have been gathering since the Kyushu tournament ended in late November. There has been talk of kadobanozeki Kaio retiring if the heya‘s long-time top dog cannot put up a winning score at Hatsu. This would be the more attractive option, rather than suffer the embarrassment of demotion to sekiwake, the penalty for two consecutive losing records as an ozeki. If he suffers two or three straight losses from the outset, then headlines about inevitable retirement may dominate throughout much of the tourney by retirement as opposed to the resurgence of Asashoryu being planned by the Takasago man.

Away from the dohyo, sumo took its first knock of 2009, just prior to the turn of the year with the cancellation of the eagerly awaited trip to London scheduled for autumn.

“One of the most annoying things is the lack of any responsibility on the part of those in Japan,” said Raymond Gubbay, co-promoter of the cancelled European Jungyo event.

As one of two well-respected, internationally recognized co-promoters charged with taking Japan’s quasi-national sport to the British capital for the first time in nearly 20 years, Gubbay said the idea was hatched four years ago but its realization was repeatedly delayed as NHK, presumably on behalf of the Sumo Association, were “constantly changing the ground rules.” That changed, however, after meetings with the former Rijicho Kitanoumi and the Japanese ambassador to the United Kingdom.

With 2009 set as the target date, and having ensured “everything was (prepared) in English and Japanese so there was no room for miscommunication,” the British side was raring to go.

According to Gubbay, however, from that point on, the Japan Sumo Association and NHK Productions “thought they were on a gravy train and NHK (stood to) take a huge commission had it gone ahead.”

Regrettably, toward the end of 2008, after the main sponsor asked for guarantees of no further scandals in the sport, everything started to fall apart — something Gubbay speculates arose as the “Japan Sumo Association were perhaps not told by NHK” about the requested guarantee.

Gubbay went on to admit that such a request would be rather “difficult” to honor and that the still-unnamed sponsor “was not entirely reasonable.” Nevertheless, the NHK’s point men have remained silent, preferring to let the Sumo Association simply announce the cancellation as the result of the global economic downturn.

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